Black Nonprofit Spotlight: Portsmouth Volunteers for the Homeless

As a part of our commitment to racial equity, the Hampton Roads Community Foundation highlights nonprofits led by Black people in order to show and support their work. According to national studies, Black-led nonprofits don't always get the same level of support as their counterparts due to racially inequitable practices. We're working to change that in Hampton Roads. The community foundation also funds Black-led nonprofits through its Black Community Partnership Fund.

Dr. Darlene Sparks Washington, executive director of Portsmouth Volunteers for the Homeless, shared an overview of her nonprofit's work with the community foundation.

Describe your nonprofit and its mission.

Portsmouth Volunteers for the Homeless, Inc. was first created in 1990. Our inception was grounded in a group of downtown churches that were disheartened by seeing individuals sleeping outside in freezing temperatures and below during winter months.

The churches, Trinity Episcopal Church, First Presbyterian Church, St. John’s Episcopal Church, and Monumental United Methodist Church gave birth to the concept of church-based winter sheltering and those four Churches who were later joined by St. Paul’s Catholic Church, became “pioneers” for the City of Portsmouth. This group incorporated Portsmouth Volunteers for the Homeless, Inc, in 1996.

Its mission is to be the primary provider of emergency shelter for people who need homes and to help them become self-sufficient through supportive services in cooperation with other local organizations.

It is a Black-led nonprofit that received funding through the community foundation’s Black Community Partnership Fund.

Portsmouth Volunteers for the Homeless
Portsmouth Volunteers for the Homeless

What programs does your nonprofit offer?

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, our organization planned, coordinated, and executed Winter Shelter services, partnering with over 25 faith communities and 10 community/civic/fraternal organizations. The Winter Shelter services included weekly (7-day) rotations to each faith community facility for night sheltering, a hearty dinner meal and any other services the churches provided as part of their own homeless ministry. The Winter Shelter services operated from mid-November to the end of April.

When Covid began reaching pandemic levels in our community and our faith communities could no longer support our needs for shelter, we launched a new partnership with Sheriff Michael Moore and the Portsmouth Sheriff’s Department. This partnership allowed us to shelter our clients in a space that was not being utilized at the time. This operational pivot, required writing new operating protocols, training paid and volunteer staff, educating clients, implementing enhanced cleaning protocols and creating risk-reducing sleeping/dining spaces. We have remained at the facility since March 2020, sheltering continuously without service disruption for more than 728 days.

We maintained our relationships with faith communities and other community partners by implementing an “Adopt-a-Week” initiative. This strategy allowed supporters to mimic their weekly shelter engagement via a drop-off delivery option.

We also operate a Service Center during the day, where clients can launder their belongings, shower, receive mail (mailing address), meet with representatives from supportive services, and continue the process of rebuilding their lives.

Portsmouth Volunteers for the Homeless
Portsmouth Volunteers for the Homeless serving dinner to clients.

What's an average day or week like for you?

We have highs when our clients come in reporting they have landed an interview or job; that their Birth Certificate came in the mail, or they were able to get their benefits.

We have crushing lows when we answer the phone and can’t provide the services the caller needs or when clients are ready for housing and there isn’t any affordable inventory available

Give an example of your nonprofit's success and impact in the region.

Here’s an anonymous example of a real client. Ms. S came to us after losing her housing, struggling with alcohol, and having her teenage child placed in foster care. Ms. S. had reached her “bottom” and was ready to rebuild. Working with a Mental Health Case Worker, she connected with outpatient substance use treatment – she kept her appointments even via Zoom and took her medication. She worked her re-housing plan, contacting landlords, applying for units, and paying application fees from her limited income. She also landed a job. Finally, Ms. S found a unit with a compassionate landlord and moved into her apartment. We gave her a safe and supportive environment to rebuild and relaunch her life, along with other household goods. She’s also now able to have home visits with her child.

What do you believe is one of the greatest needs in Hampton Roads?

This is a tough one because the “plight,” if you will, of individuals experiencing homelessness is complex and interconnected. The evidence-based strategy of “housing first,” means getting people housed first and then begin to address their other barriers and needs. With that, the one greatest need is affordable housing, accompanied by living-wage employment, and culturally appropriate mental health/substance use treatment on demand.

Portsmouth Volunteers for the Homeless
Portsmouth Volunteers for the Homeless client studying for a GED test.

What are three ways you would like the community to support your nonprofit?

Volunteerism, financial donations, and advocacy. We want to change the paradigm of perceptions about homelessness to align and rally people, agencies, businesses, and municipal leadership around solutions.

What advice would you offer to other nonprofit leaders, staff, or volunteers?

  • Mission first! Focus all minds, hearts, and actions on achieving the mission. Even team members who process paperwork must understand that piece of paper is attached to service provision either by tracking and monitoring for a report or securing additional funding. Create a work and service delivery culture that’s mission-driven.
  • Build an organization and brand that begins to do the work for you. When you build a fiscally sound and accountable organization that meets and exceeds the needs of the clients and community, that organization will attract funders, donors, volunteers, and favor. Show your work.
  • Show up every day to achieve the mission instead of looking for reasons not to do the work. Our office mantra, “we show up to shelter, not to find reasons not to shelter.” Be ready to problem-solve barriers and obstacles and celebrate victories.

Want to learn more ? Here’s how:





Office: 800 Williamsburg Avenue, Ste B (side entrance), Portsmouth VA 23704

Phone: (757) 399-0200

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